New Delhi: A number of former information commissioners came forward on Wednesday to criticise the attempts by the Narendra Modi government to rush the RTI Amendment Bill, 2019, through the parliament without following a proper consultation process. They also cautioned that, if passed, the amendment would weaken the transparency law – rated the second-best in the world – by diminishing the stature of the information commissioners who perform the important role of directing the bureaucracy to reveal the information sought by citizens.
The former information commissioners aired their views a day after the Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, where the BJP enjoys a complete majority, and on a day when the party was forced to rethink its introduction in the Rajya Sabha. The Bill was not moved in the Upper House in the wake of Biju Janata Dal and Telangana Rashtra Samiti – which together have 13 members – deciding to oppose it. The NDA has 116 members in the Rajya Sabha, still five short of a majority.
In a categorical appeal, the former commissioners urged citizens to oppose the amendments tooth and nail as they would impact their right to know.
Bill pushed in an opaque manner
At the conference organised by RTI activists, Anjali Bhardwaj of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information said 15 political parties have thus far opposed the Bill through which the Centre seeks to control the salaries and tenures of the information commissioners in both the central and state information commissions.
She accused the Centre of pushing the amendment in an opaque manner. “There is no information in the public domain about the amendments.”
Bhardwaj said, “People file RTI applications to seek information about all sorts of issues ranging from rations to foreign travels of PMO to big-ticket corruption.” The amendments, she claimed, “were a clear attempt to undermine the autonomy of the commissions.”
She said while the minister stated that the government is not going to downgrade the salaries or tenures, “there is nothing in law for preventing them from doing so”.
‘Modi talks of fighting corruption, but weakening institution doing that’
The first chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah questioned the necessity for this amendment. “Have the information commissioners failed to deliver or not exercised their authority? I think they should be given more authority.”
“Modi speaks about fighting corruption. Here is a commission which has been doing just that by helping people get information from various government departments. But instead of strengthening the information commissions, the Centre is bent upon undermining their powers,” he said.
He said there was a defect in the amendment which has been brought and claimed that the minister of state in PMP, Jitendra Singh, who introduced it in the Lok Sabha, was “very weak on facts”. Habibullah said the draft is not in keeping with the norm and presented an “absurd argument” to say that the Central Information Commission is not a constitutional body.
‘Like EC, CIC also performing constitutional duty of providing information’
“The Election Commission is a constitutional authority because elections are a constitutional right. Similarly, the right to information has been held in various rulings by the Supreme Court to be a fundamental right, and so the CIC is also a constitutional authority in that sense,” he said, while explaining how the amendment was flawed in seeking to discriminate between the EC and CIC by saying that the latter was only a statutory authority.
On the plea taken by the BJP that CIC’s rulings can be challenged in the Supreme Court, Habibullah explained: “You cannot appeal against orders of the CIC but can only move for judicial review”. He also cautioned that the amendment bill simply downgrades the status of information commissioners by seeking to reduce their salaries.
Habibullah also noted that if the Centre would control the salaries and tenures of information commissioners, it could impact their independent functioning. “If they are beholden to the government for salaries and tenures, they would certainly have second thoughts while dealing with the cases.”
‘More power, status was accorded to CIC to perform better’
Former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, who was credited with disposing of a record number of cases in his tenure, said “no plausible reason has been given by the government for amending the RTI Act. It is one of the most powerful Acts for transparency and it is changing the nature of the country.”
He said it was wrong on the part of the Centre to say that the EC and CIC should not be at par when it came to salaries since the standing committee constituted to look into the RTI Act, 2005 had itself recommended giving more power to information commissioners so that they may be able to do their duties better.
Former central information commissioner, Deepak Sandhu said she feels proud that the RTI movement continues and the “RTI Act is alive and in the hands of the people.” However, she expressed concern at the manner in which the amendment bill was moved secretly “without any pre-legislative consultation at all – even though it is mandatory.”
‘Why government has different yardstick for CIC?’
Sandhu also spoke about how the Modi government, which had in 2017 rationalised and harmonised the salaries and post-retirement benefits of 19 statutory bodies – making their heads equivalent to the chief election commissioners – has adopted a different yardstick for the CIC.
“Why is it that the CIC is being identified and treated differently? Only two of these bodies deal with fundamental rights and the RTI is also a fundamental right. Therefore, the CIC should be allowed to remain independent as per the 2005 legislation,” she demanded.
Another former CIC, Yashovardhan Azad, said: “The RTI regime had been running for the last 15 years without any issues – but the government now wants to fix the salaries and tenures of the information commissioners. There has been no issue to trigger this. The government has not given any reason – fixing does not mean salaries and tenures would be increased, so they would be decreased.”
Also, he wondered, if different information commissioner would have different salaries and tenures if the Centre would fix these.
Azad also said while the CIC may not be a constitutional authority like the CEC, “both enforce a constitutional obligation under Article 19 (1)(a) of the constitution.”
‘Move violates spirit of federalism’
Azad also raided the issue of the amendment Bill going against the federal structure. “If the Bill is passed, it means that in the states they would be paying the salaries of their IC – which does not come out of the consolidated fund – but the Centra will fix it. Will the states allow this?”
Azad also spoke about how the RTI Act empowers lakhs of poor who file applications to know about issues pertaining to municipality, ration, power bills, housing and the like. “If the powers of the commissions are curbed and people are not able to get information, they would feel further victimised,” he said.
Azad said since information commissions seek to get information for the poor, it is important that they remain powerful so that the government officials listen to them. “Else, a message will go out that these commissions are not powerful enough.”
He said when Modi has to appeal to people to give suggestion for his Independence Day speech, he should also ensure that this amendment is debated properly before any action.
‘Autonomy of all constitutional bodies getting eroded’
Another CIC, M.M., Ansari, charged that there has been an erosion of autonomy of all constitutional bodies under the Modi rule. “Be it members of the judiciary, CBI or now the CIC, they have all been speaking about this.”
On the issue of parity between the CECs and CICs, he said: “One needs to look at the genesis as it was acknowledged by parliament that while the EC monitors the people’s right to vote, which is a constitutional right, the CIC would monitor their right to information, which is also a fundamental right.”
DD has stopped airing programme on Right to Information
Unfortunately, Ansari said, the Modi government has been trying to curb people’s right to seek information. He said the government departments have also not been disclosing information that should come under mandatory disclosure. “The government has even stopped a programme on Doordarshan, ‘Jannay ka Haq’, that made people aware of how to use the RTI Act.
‘Government empowers CVC, discriminates against and downgrades CIC’
Another former CIC, Annapurna Dixit said a few years ago, the Modi government equated the chief vigilance commissioner with the chairman of the Union Public Service Commission. She said CVC was recognised as an institution that upholds governance and exposes corruption.
But, she added, that while “the CIC also performs the same functions as the CVC, it is being discriminated against. Unlike CVC, which has only recommendatory powers, the CIC has greater powers and can even penalise the bureaucracy. So I feel that there is some kind of discrimination against the RTI Act as far as the Centre is concerned.”
Dixit said at a time when the Supreme Court has upheld the right to information as a constitutional right, the Modi government clearly wants to keep information behind closed doors. “It does not want the information to come out.”
‘Freedom of speech and expression under threat’
Former CIC Sridhar Acharyulu, who during his tenure gave some landmark rulings including on transparency around demonetisation and Modi’s degree, charged that “Not only the RTI, but freedom of speech and expression is also under threat.”
He said while the CIC is upholding the right to information, which is a constitutional right, the government wants to curtail its powers. “I want every citizen to oppose this Bill, it has to be abolished. It attacks the best legislation in the world, which is the RTI Act, and if it is passed, then the institution would be destroyed.”
Acharyulu said while the government’s argument is that the CIC is not a constitutional body, the fact is: “Whichever body enforces a constitutional right is a constitutional body”. He said more powers were provided to the CIC at the time of passage of RTI Act as it was felt that “unless you give it a high status – it would not be possible for information commissioners to direct senior bureaucrats to reveal information.”
He said the test of being a constitutional body does not lie in a writ being filed against its order in a court. “Independence lies in difficulty in removal of information commissioners. We could survive only because of that rule.”
‘How will Bill shrouded in secrecy enhance transparency?’
Acharyulu also noted that the phrase “as may be prescribed by the Centre” – that pertains to its powers to control salaries and tenures – was “a very dangerous expression”. “It is an executive order by which the Centre wants to control salaries and tenures of even state information commissioners,” he noted.
Finally, Acharyulu said that when any new policy is brought, it has to be explained to the people. “But no information about the RTI Amendment Bill was provided to anybody. It was kept as a top-secret. How do we expect such an amendment to help in providing information tomorrow?” he questioned.